Are Local Judges Serving Two Masters?

Paul Moyer Studio Intro: If you take LA County to court in LA County, can you get a fair shake from the court – or are LA judges serving two masters? A KNBC investigation has uncovered long-standing financial ties between the county and local judges that some say have upset the scales of justice.

John Rizzo: Los Angeles has the best courts money can buy.

[Gavel crashing]

Paul Moyer: Activist John Rizzo is worried about potentially corrupt judges in LA County… He says: if you try to take the county to court… over child custody … property rights…a criminal matter…or if you sue the County Board of Supervisors, you’re going to lose, because -- he says -- the judges handling these cases are feeding at the county trough.

Rizzo: It’s hard enough fighting all the big boys without judges getting monies from the people you’re suing.

Attorney Sterling Norris: I think it puts a dubious cloud over the entire system.

Paul Moyer: Attorney Sterling Norris shares Rizzo’s concern, and says local judges are being tainted by special financial benefits they get from LA County.

Norris: They are the final arbiters of justice and they should have the cleanest of all hands

Paul Moyer Stand-up: Some background: In 1998 the state legislature took over the funding of local courts  – and gave Sacramento responsibility for paying the salaries and benefits of state judges. Benefits paid by the counties were to be phased out. One county hasn’t got the message.

Norris: They forgot to turn off the till in Los Angeles county.

Paul Moyer: While every other county in the state has stopped paying judicial benefits or is cutting back on them, LA County is still giving local state judges a big double dip…$40,000 in extra health and training benefits …$40,000 for each judge, each year, in addition to the six-figure salaries plus benefits they get from the state.

Norris: These judges are paid on top of every other superior court judge in the state of California, this forty thousand dollars extra.

Paul Moyer: Norris says these payments compromise the judges and create a conflict of interest for them. Richard Fine, another local attorney, agrees, and says there are no limits on how the payments are spent..

Richard Fine: The judges can elect to either spend the money for their professional development or to buy county insurance or they can just take the money, put it in their pocket and spend it any way they want.

Paul Moyer: Fine says the payments make local judges among the best-paid in the United States – and cost LA County $21 million a year…this, in a time of budget crisis. But the real scandal, he says, is that judges can pocket the money without having to disclose it to the public. 

Fine: The average person going into court against the county will never know that the judge is receiving money from the county.

Paul Moyer: And how does the money weigh in the scales of justice? Fine points to a recent case involving Marina del Rey and resident John Rizzo.

Rizzo, represented by Fine, sued LA County and various developers over the leasing of public land in the Marina at prices that Rizzo says shortchanged the public.

Rizzo: The county administers the marina.

Paul Moyer: The judges ruled against Rizzo. He says it’s because the judges were sucking up to their county paymasters.

Rizzo: How can they take money from someone you’re suing and render a just decision?

Paul Moyer: Fine says the Marina case is not unique, and notes that in 2007 no one who sued LA County won his case when the decision was made by the judge alone.

Fine: This means that the $40,000 has an effect.

Paul Moyer: Fine has repeatedly sued state Superior Court judges for taking the extra payments and not disclosing them. And Norris’ law firm, Judicial Watch, has sued LA County for making the payments. But, says Norris, taking on the county and the judges this way can be costly to a lawyer.

Norris: There’s a real fear some of those judges would retaliate against your law firm, retaliate against you in a sense for doing this.

Paul Moyer: Norris says three law firms were too afraid of retaliation to assist in his lawsuit, and Fine is facing possible loss of his attorney’s license in an action brought by the State Bar of California…before the State Bar Court.

Lawyer Kevin Taylor (before State Bar Court): Mr. Fine’s conduct in this proceeding amounts to aggravation.

Paul Moyer: In this review hearing, Attorney Kevin Taylor, representing the State Bar, accused Fine of filing frivolous lawsuits about the payments issue to harass judicial officers who’d ruled against him in other cases.

Fine (before State Bar Court): There is nothing here showing there is any frivolous litigation or anything.

Paul Moyer: The review judges, who were not from LA County courts, ultimately ruled against him and recommended his disbarment. He says he’ll fight on.

Meanwhile the Norris litigation has been up on appeal…in San Diego….beyond the reach of the judges of LA County.  Last Friday (October 10), the appeals court ruled in Norris’ favor… making payment of LA county benefits to local judges – illegal.

Norris: These payments should never have been here. The judiciary should have been above any kind of question.

Paul Moyer Studio Tag: According to the appeals ruling, the California Constitution makes it clear that only the state legislature can prescribe compensation for judges. The court said that the LA County benefits are “not permissible.”  

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